5 Rules for Grant Writers: Navigating the Grant Writing Process for Success!

This guest post article by Maryn Boess puts the fun back into grant writing.  Amid the stress of deadlines and the many personalities we navigate as grant writers on GrantwriterTeam, this article, from her website, reprinted with her permission, presents a novel approach to the profession.  Maryn Boess takes her years of experience and puts it into a gameboard for grant writers.  Enjoy! 

What’s your favorite game?

In my 20-plus years of working as an active grant professional – first as a program planner and proposal writer, more recently in my work as a trainer, coach, and grantmaker – I’ve come to see clearly that grantsmanship is not an activity; it’s a strategic, ongoing, systematic process.

I like to call the process “The Grantsmanship Game.” It’s all about managing the details of your organization’s grant seeking effort in a way that gives your proposals the winning edge – and helps them rise to the top when funders make their grant awards.

It’s a serious game, to be sure: The well-being of many, many people can depend on the outcome.

But just like any game, The Grantsmanship Game has several key elements that we need to learn – and learn to work with – if we want to not only stay in the game but win more consistently.

Let’s take a few minutes to unpack them.

Download a PDF of the “Grantsmanship Gameboard”!

“Unpacking” the Game

Basketball, checkers, Monopoly, hockey: Different games, yes – but they do share some important elements in common.

The Grantsmanship Game shares these elements as well. Here’s what you’ll find when you pull the cover off your Grantsmanship Game box:

A gameboard. The gameboard is the playing field, or operating environment, in which the game is conducted. The operating environment is always unique to the game being played: It’s pretty tough to play basketball on a checkerboard, or Monopoly in a hockey rink.

In The Grantsmanship Game, the operating environment includes your community, your constituents, the regulatory and legislative environment, the socioeconomic and political climate of your community, even the culture and values of your own organization. All of these factors will significantly and dramatically influence the shape of your grant-seeking process – and the strategies that will help you be most successful.

Rules. All games have rules. These are the non-negotiable fundamental must-dos and must-have’s of a particular game. If you want to play the game, you must agree to follow the rules. If you don’t follow the rules, either you never get into the game in the first place, or you find yourself “kicked off” the gameboard and out of the game completely. More about the five essential rules of The Grantsmanship Game later.

The Grantsmanship Game: Playing to WinMoves, or squares. In many games, the players must make their way around the gameboard by moving through a sequence of squares, in some specified order.

The same is true in The Grantsmanship Game. The moves or squares are the steps that players must take to make progress toward the end goal. In The Grantsmanship Game, the squares represent the tasks or activities we teach at GrantsMagic U as being critical to a complete, rock-solid grants process.

The moves don’t necessarily have to be made in one-after-another sequence – but no skipping allowed! If a “chance” card (see below) jumps you backward or forward, you must go back and make sure you take care of all the steps you might have missed.

Chance” cards. Guess what – we don’t control everything! Monopoly has its “chance” cards: At any given moment in a game, you can draw a card that either propels you forward or sets you back unexpectedly.

Grant seekers know this is true in their game, as well. No matter how carefully we plan and how conscientiously we follow the moves, the unexpected can happen: A key staff person gets sick just before the deadline; a major partner pulls out; another major source of funding comes through for you, completely out of the blue. When The Grantsmanship Game hands you a “chance” card like one of these, the layout of the gameboard makes it easier to figure out what you need to do to get back on track and back in the game.

A “winner’s” goal. Most games have a clear-cut starting point; not all have a clear-cut end. Monopoly is one example: The game can go on and on until there’s only one player left standing.

The Grantsmanship Game is another example.

It’s actually a cyclical game: Once you’re on the gameboard, you keep playing as long as you like, cycling through the same rules and the same steps over and over again, only with different corporate, foundation and government funders each time. The game is “won” each time the process succeeds in producing a solid grant proposal that reflects your organization’s very best efforts – one that represents your mission as a service organization, and at the same time connects with the philanthropic mission of the grantmaker.

Strategies. Finally, it isn’t enough to simply be familiar with the gameboard and have memorized the official, non-negotiable rules. To be truly, consistently, predictably successful in any game over time, we must also have practical knowledge about how to apply effective strategies. These are the skills and understandings we bring to the game that dramatically affect how efficiently and successfully we address the challenges and decisions that arise as we navigate the gameboard.

Many of the top strategies for The Grantsmanship Game are ones we learn over time, through experience and training. But I maintain that we all start out with three of the most important strategies in our skill bank. These are:

  • Common sense (surprising how quickly our ability to apply common sense becomes threatened when money is at stake!);
  • Good people skills (another surprise: contrary to many opinions, grantsmanship is a people-driven process, not a paper-driven one); and
  • A team- or partnership-oriented mindset (about which more later).

Rules of the Game

The Grantsmanship Game is different every time it’s played, because the specifics of each funder’s priorities, needs and interests are different.  But there are five basic rules that drive the game and keep you in control of the process. These are:

Rule 1: Know Yourself – Connecting Purpose and Planning

This rule speaks to the heart of the matter, which I call mission-first grantsmanship. Success in grant-seeking begins at the beginning: With a deeply held, common understanding of who you are as an organization, what you’re here to do in the world, and why it’s important.

“Deeply held” means this understanding is the foundation of everything you do as an organization. “Common” means all the stakeholders are marching under the same banner – program staff, administrative staff, board members, volunteers. Focus first on clearly, concisely and compellingly telling your organization’s story and articulating your mission, vision, and values. Then and only then will you be prepared to share that story with potential funders.

Rule 2: Build True Partnerships – Collaborating for Success

A Federal program officer said it loud and clear a few years back: “Whether the funder requires it or not, if it ain’t a collaborative proposal, it ain’t gonna be competitive.” It’s all about leveraging. How can you work with other members of your community to share resources, responsibilities, risks, and rewards?

The emphasis here is on the word “true.” Funders aren’t fooled by a “partnership” that consists of a slapped-together list of names with no sense of commitment or shared vision behind it. The best partnerships begin before there’s money on the table because two or three or four people from different organizations recognize an opportunity to work together for the greater good of each other – and the community at large.

Rule 3: Plan, Plan, Plan – Plan! – Building Your Master Grant Proposal Blueprint

Did you know that only 20% of a successful grant seeking effort involves actually writing the proposal? The other 80% consists of – you guessed it – planning.

A solid grant proposal is nothing more than a business plan, plain and simple. You wouldn’t go to a bank for a loan without a business plan in place. And you shouldn’t approach a prospective funder with anything less than a complete, detailed blueprint for how you see your program or project working.

The planning should take place before you begin assembling a proposal for a particular funder. In other words, develop your own business plan first – your source document.  Then you can draw from it and tailor it to fit any grantmaker’s required form and format.

Rule 4: Know Your Funder – Research and Relationships

Ah, at last – we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty.

“Know Your Funder” speaks to the issue of doing your homework.

This means using the appropriate resources to identify your A-list of grantmakers most likely to be interested in what you have to offer, and then of finding out everything you can about who they are, what they’re looking for, and what they hope to achieve with their grantmaking. Then and only then can you decide whether the funder is a good fit for your organization.

All other factors aside, the single most important reason funders choose to support a given request for funding is that what the applicant has to offer helps the funders achieve their own mission and purpose in the world.

An additional word of wisdom: The best time to begin a relationship with a prospective funder is not two days before the proposal is due!

Rule 5: Create an A+ Grant Proposal – On Paper or Online

This is where it all comes together, at last.

What is an A+ proposal? Well, getting funded is a good indicator here – but there’s more to it than that.

Whether or not a given proposal is chosen for funding depends on a lot of considerations that are outside the grant seeker’s direct control. For me, the definition of an A+ proposal focuses on four qualities that we can control. These are:

(1)  It’s in on time. No ifs, ands, or buts. If there’s a deadline, and you don’t meet it, nothing else matters. End of subject.

(2)  It crosses all the t’s and dots all the i’s. Whatever instructions or qualifications the funder holds for the proposal, you’ve paid attention to each and every one of them. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming an “easy out,” as in: “Oops, look, we asked that proposals be submitted unbound, and this one’s stapled. Well, that’s one more proposal we won’t have to bother reading.”

(3)  The proposal clearly represents the front end of a well-thought-out business plan. This relates directly back to Rule #3 and calls on us to make sure all the questions have been answered, all the pieces are in place, and everything holds together and makes sense.

Finally, the kicker:

(4)  Your proposal makes it very clear how supporting your proposal will help the funder further its own philanthropic mission. Guess what: Grantmakers need us – they can’t fulfill their philanthropic missions for creating change in the world without the programs and services that we offer. Our proposals succeed to the extent that we can demonstrate this all-important match with the funder’s own mission.

The Rule of Common Sense

There’s one other non-negotiable rule to success in the grantsmanship game – and that’s what I call the Rule of Common Sense.

All other things being equal, we can rely on our own innate common sense – the same good thinking skills that have helped us be successful in other areas of our life – to guide us through much of The Grantsmanship Game’s murkier territories.

As you’re moving around the gameboard, ask yourself almost any question – for instance:

  • “The page limits are so strict; should I eliminate headings and bulleted lists to save space?”
  • “I wonder if the funder would like to see a description of our partnership efforts, even if it isn’t required?”
  • “I don’t understand this instruction; what do they really want here?”
  • “We don’t fit their guidelines but they’re new in our community and doing a lot of local funding. Shouldn’t we send a proposal too?”

Then ask yourself: What would common sense dictate? The answers will be, in this order:

  • How would you like it if you were the reviewer struggling through 30 proposals that were nothing but paragraph after paragraph of solid black unbroken text?;
  • Sure, wouldn’t you?;
  • Don’t guess or second-guess – call the funder and ask; and
  • Nope! (though you may want to begin a “feeling-them-out” relationship in case they open up their funding priorities).

See? That wasn’t so tough. Common sense wins, virtually every time. Hang on to yours, as tightly as you can. You’ll encounter plenty of fellow players along the way who will try to wrest your common sense from you, in the name of chasing the money.

Don’t let them. Trust the good judgment that has brought you this far. It can take you all the way.

A  Final Word About “Fun”

When teaching The Grantsmanship Game concept I often ask people what associations they can make between the words grantsmanship and game. Most answers are pretty predictable: They’ll come up with rules, and players; money (if they’re thinking about Monopoly); competition; and winning.

Every once in a while, a lone voice will raise tremulously in the back of the room, as if almost embarrassed to speak out: “What about fun? I think working on grant proposals is fun. Am I crazy?”

Yes, you are – crazy like a fox. After all, enjoying what we do is what puts the zip in our work, keeps us coming back, keeps us wanting to do more, do better, stretch and grow. The great thing is, it works the other way around, too: The better we are at doing something, the more we’re likely to enjoy doing it.

And guess what: The more we win, too!

This article is edited and reprinted with the author’s permission.

If you’re new to grant seeking and could use a getting-started boost, be sure to check out Maryn’s free Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal – a simple, powerful proposal planning tool plus three-part video training to get you on your way to success!

If you enjoyed this post, please share! For more great grants tips see our GrantWriterTeam articles.

About the Author: Over her 25+-year nonprofit career, Maryn has been an on-staff grant writer, grants consultant, a grants trainer, a grants reviewer, author, speaker, mentor and coach; and – since 2006 – even a grantmaker. This 3-D background brings a unique insider’s perspective to the practical and inspiring training of grant writers.